Agility and Organization are not in Contradiction

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

#Automotive Agile

Agile company? Is an agile company not a contradiction in itself? Overhead makes every organization inertial, does it not? Everybody has painful memories of how slow and rigid some organizations can be.

Size does not matter. The reason lies not only in the official company structure: distributed, flat, hierarchical and any in between. The Software Drive report identifies “agility” as a main field of action: “… as implementation speeds increase, innovation cycles become ever shorter and the competitive environment becomes more turbulent, the agility of a company itself will become increasingly important as will agile cooperation between companies.” [p49]

Task forces

How do companies react today when they encounter a problem that they do not seem to be getting under control? They create “Task forces.” The name may differ, but the effect is the same. Task forces tend to have a very specific purpose. They only exist until the purpose is achieved. Task forces do not have to follow the “normal rules.” They have a certain autonomy to decide how they want to work. They have first call on resources, human or otherwise. They have management’s attention, which ensures any obstacles in their way are removed quickly. All of this makes the members “feel valued and respected.” Task forces get the adrenalin going and can be very effective in “rallying the troops” for the given purpose. Task forces are led, not managed.

Teams are key

There  are some similarities between successful task forces and successful teams in agile software development. The similarities lie in how people work together and how they are led. Take the team as the starting cell of a company structure that can grow organically. This means the core ability of an agile organizations must be to organize work at all levels around teams – high performance teams.

Team performance matters

A high performance team is not the same as a team of individual high performers. It delivers even more performance than sum of the individual high performers. We all know that from team sports like rugby or soccer.
High performance teams deliver a high performance continuously. They have a common purpose, are strongly goal oriented and organize themselves and are self-contained for the task at hand. The bond in a team derives from an environment that encourages mutual respecttrustempathy and caring. These values are often found missing in the corporate world. Current HR practices in automotive tend to imply competition among the employees, each on his or her personal career. This does not sit well with team formation and working. Imagine everyone in an eight-man scull rowing at their own rate! High performance team members care about their common purpose, a common (own) approach, and they care about each other.

The team decides dynamically how it can best reach its goals (within reason) and it directly connects to its customers – inside or outside the company. Teams, not individuals or departments, are the building blocks of an agile organization. If we scale this to teams of teams, we have the capability to form a complex organization. Provided we can also bring the common purpose, self-organization and the values of respect, trust, empathy and caring to the next stage, then this might just work.

Collaborate or compete

Task forces are temporary. High performance teams not. Teams take time to form and even more time to reach the high performance level. The speed and the success rates goes up, if the teams are professionally coached during their buildup. This coaching needs to include a relevant method of work that will for the base for the internal collaboration. This includes, above all, how decisions are made. The more diverse the team members are, the more important the decision making process is. It should be a process based on consent, as this facilitates all perspectives to be explored. We shall look at consent-based decision making and why such a practice increases the team creativity in a separate post.

True collaboration requires openness and trust. Everything that happens inside and around the team must be open to every team member. And this needs to scale to the team of teams level. The underlying communication system must be supportive of communication based on pull rather than pushing reports. It needs to document what is happening while it is happening to simplify traceability of all decisions.

With all this investment in making the teams effective it is obvious that teams themselves must become “first class citizens” in the eyes of the corporation. Not only the individual contributors. To unlock the team members’ cooperation this new esteem also requires serious investments in both the competence of teams over a longer lifetime. Teams need something like a career path.

Team culture

If an organization can successfully build high performance teams that live over a longer period of time, then it should have the right “ingredients” to become agile. Try not to transform the whole organization in one go, but by gradually re-structure the work and build more agile teams. It is important that

  • these teams really have the freedom to experiment – starting from a common method and toolset
  • the teams are motivated to share their lesson learnt – good and bad – in short circles
  • the rest of the organization get motivated to interact – across all levels and divisions of the enterprise.

This builds a common team culture. And it is a start for an agile organization.

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